When massive tsunami waves hit some of the most beautiful and densely populated coastal regions in South and Southeast Asia on the day after Christmas in 2004, the global response to visually powerful aid appeals in the international media was the largest in the history of humanitarian giving.
In the weeks that followed, over 500 INGOs arrived in the two regions most affected by the tsunami – Aceh, in Indonesia, and northeast Sri Lanka – and USD 13.5 billion was pledged and delivered by the international community for recovery.
Both Aceh and Sri Lanka had experienced cycles of low-intensity armed conflict and uncertain peace for decades. The unprecedented flow of international donor assistance into the former helped to catalyse the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding and the Aceh peace process that came into effect six months after the tsunami disaster.
Of course, initial contacts between the newly elected government of Indonesia and the separatist Gerekan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) had commenced prior to the disaster, via Finnish mediators. On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, while the tsunami disaster and international assistance contributed to initial rapprochement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, the fraying Norwegian brokered peace process (2001-08) proved unsustainable. Why this stark difference?
Today, the Aceh peace process is regarded as one of the most successful internationally mediated peace accords in the world. The collapse of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process in Sri Lanka, meanwhile, saw renewed fighting, which ended only through the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Yet the root causes of the conflict in Sri Lanka remain largely unresolved, and the sustainability of peace in Sri Lanka remains an open question. While the tsunami was only one factor in these two peace processes, it is a useful springboard by which to view the stark differences between these processes. These differences included the ways in which international assistance was allowed and utilised, the location of the conflicts, and the characters of the militant groups – and, of course, their very different outcomes.
The first important distinction between the peace processes in Sri Lanka and Aceh is the amount and nature of involvement by the international community. It is now fairly well established that international assistance in low-intensity internal armed conflicts and peace processes can sometimes feed a renewed conflict cycle. Research at the United States Institute for Peace has also indicated that, of the 38 peace processes that took place with international assistance between 1989 and 1999, 33 returned to conflict within the first three years. In addition, over time certain actors in the international community may tend to become intertwined in the conflict processes, given the nature of the evolving international political economy of peace-building and reconstruction. And critically, a corollary of any over-internationalisation would be the lack of inclusive peace-building, as well as local ownership of reconstruction policy and paradigm.
Prior to the tsunami, the Aceh conflict had been a ‘silent war’. This referred to the fact that it was largely isolated from the rest of the world due to the Indonesian government’s unwillingness to internationalise the conflict, including strict policies discouraging international organisations from working in the conflict areas. Much of this was put down to the Indonesian government having felt stung by the international community due to events in East Timor. It was only after visiting Aceh in the days following the tsunami that the Indonesian vice-president, Yusuf Kallar, called for international assistance. In Sri Lanka, however, throughout the conflict years there had been a long, sustained international presence, with successive governments having had an open-door policy towards the international diplomacy and the assistance industry. This international presence grew during the peace process and still further after the tsunami.
Similarly, there were substantive differences in the international aid architecture developed to support the peace processes in these two countries. In Aceh, there was the Aceh Monitoring Mission (the AMM, comprised of EU and ASEAN monitors), set up with a clear timeframe and mandate. In Sri Lanka there was a Scandinavian monitoring group, headed by a Norwegian who had direct access to the mediators. Early on in the peace process, human-rights groups pointed to the fact that the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) needed to be independent from the peace-process facilitators; facilitators would not be effective monitors, critics said, since they wielded the carrot rather than the stick at the conflicting parties. The SLMM subsequently suffered a loss of credibility, and when the parties to the conflict engaged in violations the monitors could do little to address these.
The tsunami opened a window for peace in Aceh because of the scale of the disaster (almost 200,000 killed) and the subsequent influx by the international community. The disaster provided the psychological impetus for GAM, already weakened by military operations, to lay down its guns and demilitarise, and for the government of Indonesia to withdraw troops and seek peace. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the peace process was already frayed at the edges, and there was no question of demilitarisation after the tsunami struck. The scale of the disaster in Lanka was also smaller, with 31,000 killed. Furthermore, due to lack of transparency and rent-seeking behaviour by all parties, aid became a cause for multiple conflicts in Sri Lanka in the days following the disaster. This was partly because much of the aid did not reach the disaster victims, but was instead used by the international aid bureaucracy and the large number of international ‘experts’, consultants and volunteers that flew in from overseas. In turn, this gave rise to a visible post-tsunami ‘phantom aid’ industry, which caused much resentment among locals.
Meanwhile, the parties to the conflict accused one another of misappropriating international aid, which indeed was the case though to a lesser extent. Simultaneously, the institutional framework put in place for post-disaster recovery and the linking of tsunami aid disbursement to making progress on power- and resource-sharing resulted in delays in aid delivery that caused- greater suffering to disaster victims. This also meant that many of the victims from the Muslim community, and thus not part of the main ethnic conflict or peace process, did not receive adequate and timely assistance. In addition, the year-long negotiations for a Post-Tsunami Operation Mechanism (P-TOM) process, which was later rejected by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and detrimental to the unitary state, exacerbated the situation on the ground by delaying the post-conflict and tsunami recovery operations in the Sri Lanka northeast. In Aceh, in contrast, there were two separate agencies for tsunami disaster recovery and conflict recovery and rehabilitation, ensuring a far smoother and efficient operation.
For Sri Lanka, the ramifications of this significant international presence were extensive. After the Norwegian-brokered Ceasefire Agreement in 2002 in Sri Lanka, three international pledging conferences for the island were held in Oslo, Washington and Tokyo, gleaning the promise of USD 4.5 billion for post-conflict reconstruction in the Tokyo conference. Four co-chairs were appointed to Sri Lanka’s peace process – Norway, the EU, the US and Japan, the latter being the island’s largest aid donor. The World Bank, which had positioned itself to lead the expanding international reconstruction industry and bureaucracy in the island, was appointed custodian of the North East Reconstruction Fund (NERF), which was to channel and monitor international aid for post-conflict reconstruction. However, in the two years after the agreement, peace increasingly became an international legal fiction, an assumption contrary to ground realities. Locally, it was called a “no war, no peace” process among the talking classes.
During this time, for the first time in the history of the almost 25 years of armed conflict, there were coordinated attacks on international aid agencies. The LTTE called for a boycott of some INGOs, and female staff members were urged to leave their NGO jobs in the Batticaloa District in 2005, among other events. This trend seemed to reach a bloody culmination with the murder of 17 employees of the French group Action Contre le Faim in Trincomalee in 2007, blamed on the military. Such targeting underlined that external actors had somehow become enmeshed in a deeper way in the conflict dynamics in Sri Lanka. Yet all the while, the international bureaucracy for peace and reconstruction continued to place a ‘transaction cost’ on local institutions and the peace process, resulting in too much time spent on international development agendas, conferences and donor timeframes – which were often at odds with the needs and priorities of those affected by the conflict. For instance, throughout the USD 4.5 billion peace process in Sri Lanka, the north and east coastal fisheries communities continued a subsistence economy.
This was despite the fact that the island’s two main donors for the peace process, Japan and Norway, both had highly industrialised fisheries sectors. This was also a dangerous oversight, given that the most influential number of combatants in the LTTE hailed from impoverished coastal fishing communities (the Karaya caste) and rural agricultural communities in the northeast. Yet little attempt was made to develop and industrialise the fisheries sector, which might have provided alternative livelihoods for combatants who were recruited from poor fishing communities. Several local experts noted instead the bias towards big business and tourism in the post-conflict and tsunami needs assessments undertaken by the multilateral agencies, while the upscaling of fisheries infrastructure was ignored.
The international community, along with the main actors, differed on the core social, political and economic issues that structure the dynamics of the conflict, even as they promoted a neo-liberal economic reconstruction agenda that was at odds with the reconstruction needs and priorities of local communities. In hindsight, this approach undermined the Ceasefire Agreement due to a perceived lack of local ownership of the peace process. Very little of the promised funds reached the communities affected by the disasters, and from which the majority of combatants were recruited. Mis-targeted aid translated into an economic bubble, a dramatic rise in the cost of living, and increased inequality and poverty in the communities from which fighters were recruited. In a very short time, the government that signed the peace agreement with the LTTE was voted out of power – and the rest is history.
Indeed, a major reason for the success of the peace process in Aceh was that it addressed economic and identity issues in a comprehensive manner. Both the conflicts in Aceh and Sri Lanka were struggles of marginalised ethno-religious groups for equal rights to economic development and self-determination. The Aceh conflict also had a substantial resources element, insofar as Aceh is Indonesia’s third-richest yet fourth-poorest province, because of the concentration of oil-and-gas revenue generated there that finds its way to the central government in Jakarta. In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, the resources dimension of the conflict stemmed from the under-development of minority regions and the marginalisation of Tamils from state-sector jobs, as well as the economic travails of a community whose traders have been under siege during periodic anti-Tamil urban riots.
There were also important differences in the structure of the assistance in these two post-tsunami situations. In Sri Lanka, much of this was in the form of loans rather than grants, whereas in Aceh most international assistance came as grants. This was because of the fact that reconstruction and peace-building in Aceh started after the tsunami, when there were substantial funds available; whereas in Sri Lanka, the peace process had begun two years prior to the tsunami, and the aid was not available at that time. Moreover, in Sri Lanka the disbursement of donor assistance was through the World Bank’s NERF, which took a long time to get off the ground, and in the meantime little was done for communities affected by the conflict.
In Aceh, there was far better local ownership of the post-tsunami policy and peace building agenda. This was particularly due to the Indonesian government refusal to link post-conflict and post-tsunami recovery; and, as noted above, there were two separate agencies to handle the post-tsunami and post-conflict recovery. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, there was a notable bias towards accountability to donors, rather than accountability to disaster-affected communities, the result being the marginalisation of in-country development expertise, as well as lack of decentralisation and accountability to local communities in the reconstruction phase. The Sri Lanka Task Force on Reconstructing the Nation (TAFREN), tasked with development-and-reconstruction policy and its monitoring and evaluation, was based in Colombo, far from the disaster-affected districts, and was predominantly run by international experts and advisors who lacked knowledge of the island’s society, politics and institutional culture. This was partly due to Colombo’s failure to appoint a strong and qualified leadership to TAFREN and, in some instances, lack of transparency regarding tsunami funds.
This was not the case in Aceh, however, where the post-tsunami recovery and peace process was more inclusive, with many groups feeding into it. As researcher Elizabeth Drexler noted in 2008, “There was a strong sense that all components of Acehnese society had come together in countless meetings and agreed on a version of the law” – the Law on the Governance of Aceh, which was passed in mid-2006 and enabled local parties – “to submit to Jakarta. They had to lobby for what came to be called the ‘All-Aceh’ draft.”
Differences of war and peace
There are also a few important points that need to be made with regards to the internal structures of the peace processes themselves, and how they progressed. One of the reasons for the failure of the peace process in Sri Lanka was the fact that the government that signed the peace process was a minority government. Therefore, it was unable to bring a constitutional arrangement for power-sharing, since it did not control the all-powerful presidency and judiciary whose consent was necessary for power-sharing. In Indonesia, on the other hand, the new government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was far stronger and more cohesive on the issue of peacemaking in Aceh. As noted earlier, the Indonesian government also controlled the key institutions necessary to ensure passage of the critical Law on the Governance of Aceh.
Therefore, the closing of the window for peace in Sri Lanka was partly because of the inability of the government to offer substantive devolution to the LTTE-held regions. This was exacerbated by the intransigence, impatience and inability of the LTTE to transform itself into a more democratic organisation. Together, these factors contributed to the fact that the ‘peace dividend’ was not forthcoming to the people due to the problematic role of the international aid industry. These elements resulted in the fall of the government that signed the peace process in Sri Lanka, and brought into power a regime bent on war and militarism as a solution to the conflict. At this point, then, it could be said that the Indonesian and Sri Lankan states are on reverse trajectories – one moving towards greater democratisation out of dictatorship, and the other towards greater militarisation and centralisation.
The timing of the tsunami in relation to the peace processes in Aceh and Sri Lanka also partly explains the different peace-building outcomes. Again, the tsunami had a significant psychological impact, which opened the space for GAM to think of disarming and demobilising – a process that is very difficult of any armed guerrilla movement. In Sri Lanka, the peace process was already two years old, without demilitarisation or decommissioning; by the time the tsunami hit, there was no reason at that time to talk of disarmament, simply due to the fact that it had never been on the agenda in the first place. While the tsunami thus provided a weakened GAM with a face-saving exit from violence, in Sri Lanka there was a notion that there was a parity of parties between the LTTE and the Colombo government – and that neither party would lay down weapons.
The mid-2005 Helsinki Agreement that established the peace process in Aceh was a fairly comprehensive document, which built on previous rounds of negotiation and addressed core issues in the conflict. It was viewed by the conflicting parties as the first in a series of clearly defined and time-bound steps towards substantive and inclusive peace-building. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the Norwegian-mediated Ceasefire Agreement appeared to become an end in itself. It is well known that Marti Atissari, the former prime minister of Finland and chief mediator in the Aceh peace processes, had called for a time-bound process. At the same time, Attisari’s famous phrase was, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” which established the need for a comprehensive agreement that addressed all outstanding issues within a clear timeframe.
In Sri Lanka, however, there was neither a timeframe granted for the negotiations nor an addressing of core issues, aside from the LTTE dropping the demand for a separate state in exchange for substantial devolution of power within a federal constitution. Norwegian State Secretary Vidar Helgesen had said, “If the parties get an interim solution it will still have a way to go to a final settlement. In that sense, I think we’re talking of years rather than months.” The Norwegian approach to peace in Sri Lanka seemed idealistic and flexible, whereas the Finnish approach was pragmatic and more assertive. In short, it may be that the Norwegian mediators were taken for a ride by the parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka, due to the lack of adequate preparation and a clear agenda.
Finally, it is important to reiterate that during peace-building in Sri Lanka there was inadequate engagement with the complexity of the conflict. Similarly, there was a failure to look beyond the culturalism or ‘ethnic’ narrative, to understand the embedded social and economic inequalities, and to address these issues as part of an inclusive, sustainable peace process. This was partly because of the large number of international actors and the tendency for international facilitators to collaborate with the parties in the conflict to keep the peace agenda narrow, rather than to broaden it and make it more inclusive of local communities. In short, there is a need to ‘de-ethnicise’ conflict analysis, and to move beyond the culturalist framing of conflict.
Hopefully, the lessons drawn from the peace processes in Aceh and Sri Lanka can serve as a turning point for a structural adjustment of the international peace and development industry, in order to ensure accountability to the communities affected by disasters, as well as inclusive peace-building. This requires getting beyond the currently popular international ‘toolkit’ approach to post-conflict reconstruction, and ensuring inclusive peace-building with civil-society actors and disaster-affected communities. The need is also clear for strong Asian regional institutions that are familiar with the culture of post-colonial Asian state-building, development and conflict processes, as well as the intra-group dynamics of inter-group conflicts, to contribute to effective regional conflict transformation and peace-building initiatives. It is increasingly obvious that different approaches are necessary in situations of intra-state conflict, and there might be a need to rethink conventional conflict-resolution frameworks that are based on inter-state rather than intra-state peace-building.
~ Darini Rajasingham Senanayake is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, the National University of Singapore.